No matter what’s your job or path; if you’re a woman, you’ve probably experienced some form of discrimination throughout your career or in your life, in general. What you might not consider, though, is that there are women out there, who are wearing a uniform and risk their lives for peace and security, and are getting an even harder time from their male peers for no good reason. The NATO and other international organizations are moving to do something about this issue, and hopefully, they will lead and succeed in bringing a more just gender perspective to the mainstream.
As a woman active in the promotion of diversity in the work field – particularly within IT in my case, – I was curious to understand how the armed forces approach the gender gap issue, and which are their tools for a gender parity. Surprisingly (or not) there is still a lot that needs to be done, and the barriers seem to be not too different from other, more typical, career paths.
On the 29th of October, I had the opportunity to participate in an open conference in NATO concerning Women, Peace, and Security. The meeting was held on the occasion of the 15th anniversary of the Resolution 1325 – a landmark international legal framework addressing the severe impact of war on women, and the pivotal role women should and do play in conflict management, conflict resolution, and sustainable peace – to present two projects. One, the handbook on ‘Gender-Related Complaints in Armed Forces’ and, the other being ‘The 1325 Scorecard’. Both are supported by the Science for Peace and Security Programme. This is what I’ve learned and what I feel it’s worth a further discussion on.
The military is a male-dominated field. Why is it so important to have more women in the armed forces?
Even if we have increasingly more women entering this career path, there’s still a lot to be done for an equal participation and to encourage the opening of senior positions to women in the military. Discrimination is present at all levels and I understood right away that this field is no way different from the rest of our society. For some reasons, I had the idea that women in the military would have been treated with more respect “just” because they (seem to) have masculine skills (this is certainly a bias to start with).
But I was completely wrong. The glass ceiling is present also here and many of the women who start a career in the military end up dropping it just as they have to decide if to do it for life. They don’t have the perspective of growth, nor enough gratification, I would add. The same feelings and situations we find in the STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering and Math) field; as discussed at Brussels edition of Women in Tech Night.
Overall, though, adding more women is not the main point of the gender approach. Tools like quotas, for example, can only have an immediate effect, but they are not a valid resolution against the gender gap, pointed out Ms. Sonja Stojanovic Gajic, the Director of the Belgrade Center for Security Policy. As she continues, what we need instead is measurable targets and to promote them with a long-term vision of a communal benefit throughout inclusiveness.
Women can’t only be seen as victims of wars; we need to start to understand that they have a role as contributors and enablers of peace. In Afghanistan for example, the presence of women in NATO forces “allowed to interact with the population as a whole. […] and in many instances led to better overall assessments and intelligence collection. In some instances the presence of female soldiers reduced tensions during military operations.” (as cited in “The 1325 Scorecard, Preliminary Findings” p. 8-9). With this in mind, the gender perspective approach was addressed many times during the event, not only as the smart thing to do but also as the right thing to do.
Specialists don’t mean ‘specials‘ – A tool to “prevent misconduct, and handling and monitoring of complaints within armed forces”
As discussed by Ms. Nicola Williams, Service Complaints Commissioner for the Armed Forces in the UK, members of the armed forces are considered specialists in what they do, but on sexual discrimination we must say they are not ‘special.’
What is observed in many different countries is that there’s a lack of confidence in the complaints mechanism. The process is too slow, not efficient, or even exposes the victim of harassment in such ways that make the whole process counterproductive.
Shortly, we can say that also here there’s a lack of gender perspective. Also, some countries even perceive the fact of not receiving complaints (zero) as a good sign, and they don’t consider the possibility of having a problem with the complaints process. It would have been interesting to discuss this point, especially with Norway, which is one big sustainer of the gender perspective, albeit declares producing zero gender-related complaints within the armed forces.
For example, 90% of women that experience harassment in the UK armed forces doesn’t make a formal complaint, a situation that to me doesn’t seem very different from what we have in the civil society, stated Ms. Williams.
Monitoring and dissemination are key aspects to counteract this phenomenon. You can’t change what you can’t measure, and again, we need data to see and to show others which improvements are needed and the progress we’ve made. And for that publishing periodical reports of the findings are crucial. The Belgian military forces have installed a database only a few years ago to establish measures for future prevention. A late step towards gender perspective, but still a positive sign.
Meanwhile Lt.Col Dominique Peeters, Complaints Manager at the Belgian Defence Forces, assures that her approach to real change is to listen and to be available; increase communication and reassure total discretion in the complaints process. Because it’s important to have regulations that are effective, but it’s also important to build trust day by day.
The handbook on ‘Gender-Related Complaints in Armed Forces’ presented at the event, is a tool designed to “prevent misconduct, and handling and monitoring of complaints within armed forces”, with particular regard to gender. Why such a tool is necessary in the first place, by this point is now clear I guess. But how do we bring the gender perspective into everyday life is what the handbook can help with.
First of all, it’s crucial to invest in gender sensitive research, increase transparency, and the NATO needs to lead by example on these principles translating them into practice on the ground. This is what Ambassador Marriët Shuurman, NATO Secretary General’s Special Representative for Women, Peace & Security, emphasized at the conference.
We then have statistics and reports that can be provided to show how having women in a team increases the success of the missions and does not affect readiness at all. The high level of the military institutions need to be engaged about the importance of a gender perspective, said Ms. Megan Bastick, Gender and Security Fellow at the Geneva Center for the Democratic Control of Armed Forces, and author of the hereby presented handbook.
Mr. Joseph Hoenen, Civil Advisor to the 1st German/Netherlands Corps, reminded us all that although the military planning procedures are very complex and hard to break into, and even if leaders are fully committed to the cause, the problem resides in changing these 1k pages procedures based on routine. They need to be assisted, he said. As for “should all the gender advisors always be women?” he recommended to having an out-of-the-box points of view to talk to male leaders effectively. Diversity is needed all around, we re-confirmed that. The figure of a gender advisor needs to be implemented concretely, and not only at the low levels but also, and especially, at the commander level.
No more “Why”, but “How” – Gender perspective has to become the mainstream
So leadership engagement is essential for prevention, but it’s with specific trainings that we begin the real change. As Ms. Jill Loftus, Director of the Department of the Navy Sexual Assault Prevention Office in U.S.A., pointed out: no more powerpoint-style presentations, but interactive small groups instead, lead by members of the command itself. The usage of role play activities is particularly effective, confirmed Ms. Virpi Levomaa, Course Director and Instructor at the Nordic Center for Gender in Military Operations, who also mentioned that her students no longer ask her “Why” we should integrate a gender perspective, but instead, they started to ask “How” this can be done. This is clearly a positive change achieved through learning in a different way, by engaging various trainings with scenarios and role play activities that explain real life situations.
It seems to me that we can only understand each other when we put ourselves into each others’ shoes. Re-enacting to learn how to be empathetic. Empathy is something that we perceive as an innate characteristic of females, but instead it’s only a tool that can be learned through education. Sexual discrimination can also be indirect with discrimination based on sexual orientation, for example; so it’s easy to see that we can also have male victims affected if there’s no gender perspective in place.
Ms. Stojanovic brought up an interesting point on how countries with less resources seem to do more for gender equality, and I wonder if this is because their will to grow is stronger than the unfounded and counterproductive stereotype on the second sex. Gender perspective it’s about being effective in conflict resolution and progress as a society, as Dr. Chantal de Jonge Oudraat, President of Women in International Security, stressed: there’s an indivisibility between gender equality and peace & security.
These are (some of) the reasons why we need more women to join and succeed in the armed forces. And even if I wish they were not armed and look forward to a world that doesn’t need the military, I have to say that I have hope for these institutions to start a change that is still taking so long to happen in our civil society and show a model that we can then extend to all other fields.
Featured picture credit: Israel Defense Forces /Flickr CC